Revision and Resistance: The Politics of Native Women's Motherwork

By Udel, Lisa J. | Frontiers - A Journal of Women's Studies, June 2001 | Go to article overview

Revision and Resistance: The Politics of Native Women's Motherwork


Udel, Lisa J., Frontiers - A Journal of Women's Studies


Contemporary Native women of the United States and Canada, politically active in Indigenous rights movements for the past thirty years, variously articulate a reluctance to affiliate with white feminist movements of North America. Despite differences in tribal affiliation, regional location, urban or reservation background, academic or community setting, and pro- or antifeminist ideology, many Native women academics and grassroots activists alike invoke models of preconquest, egalitarian societies to theorize contemporary social and political praxes. Such academics as Paula Gunn Allen, Rayna Green, and Patricia Monture-Angus, as well as Native activists Wilma Mankiller, Mary Brave Bird, and Yet Si Blue (Janet McCloud) have problematized the reformative role white feminism can play for Indigenous groups, arguing that non-Native women's participation in various forms of Western imperialism have often made them complicit in the oppression of Native peoples. (1) More important, Native women contend that their age ndas for reform differ from those they identify with mainstream white feminist movements. The majority of contemporary Native American women featured in recent collections by Ronnie Farley, Jane Katz, and Steve Wall, for example, are careful to stress the value of traditional, precontact female and male role models in their culture. (2) One aspect of traditional culture that Native women cite as crucial to their endeavor is what Patricia Hill Collins calls "motherwork." (3) Many Native women valorize their ability to procreate and nurture their children, communities, and the earth as aspects of motherwork. "Women are sacred because we bring life into this world," states Monture-Angus. "First Nations women are respected as the centre of the nation for [this] reason." (4) Native women argue that they have devised alternate reform strategies to those advanced by Western feminism. Native women's motherwork, in its range and variety, is one form of this activism, an approach that emphasizes Native traditions of "r esponsibilities" as distinguished from Western feminism's notions of "rights."

Writing for an ethnically diverse feminist audience in the journal Callaloo, Clara Sue Kidwell (Choctaw/Chippewa) warns: "Although feminists might deny this equation of anatomy and destiny, the fact is that the female reproductive function is a crucial factor in determining a woman's social role in tribal societies. Women bear children who carry on the culture of the group." (5) Mary Gopher (Ojibway) explains the analogy of woman/Earth inherent in philosophies of many tribes: "In our religion, we look at this planet as a woman. She is the most important female to us because she keeps us alive. We are nursing off of her." (6) Carrie Dann (Western Shoshone) adds: "Indigenous women, they're supposed to look at themselves as the Earth. That is the way we were brought up. This is what I try to tell the young people, especially the young girls." (7) Gopher and Dann invest motherwork with religious and cultural authority that they, as elders, must transmit to younger women in their communities. Many contemporary Nat ive women argue that they must also educate white women in their traditional roles as women in order to safeguard the earth, so that they will survive. Calling upon traditions of female leadership, Blue (Tulalip) contends:

It is going to be the job of Native women to begin teaching other women what their roles are. Women have to turn life around, because if they don't, all of future life is threatened and endangered. I don't care what kind of women they are, they are going to have to worry more about the changes that are taking place on this Mother Earth that will affect us all. (8)

Blue, like many Native women activists, links women's authority as procreators with their larger responsibilities to a personified, feminized Earth.

Several Native women condemn Western feminism for what they perceive as a devaluation of motherhood and refutation of women's traditional responsibilities. …

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